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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Teens on the fast track to executive status on the Strip

11 December 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- While most teenagers are happy for a job at McDonald's or the mall, a handful of high school students are being groomed for management jobs at Strip resorts.

Angela Szewczyk, for instance, began working as an intern for Wolfgang Puck - and we're not talking about clearing tables - as a 17-year-old high school senior.

Four years later, Szewczyk is among the first students to complete a little-known internship program in Las Vegas to identify future food and beverage executives early in life.

The program began about six years ago over a chummy lunch among food and beverage executives from competing Strip casinos. With Las Vegas morphing into a top culinary destination, the executives sought a way to train future leaders and keep their industry competitive.

"We are all very driven people and we wanted to develop" the next generation, said Bart Mahoney, vice president of food and beverage at MGM Mirage's upcoming CityCenter resort project.

The executives formed the Epicurean Charitable Foundation primarily to raise money for high school students who might not be able to afford college. For Szewczyk, who grew up in Connecticut, the daughter and granddaughter of small-town pharmacists, being accepted into the program was like winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot.

"Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I'd be doing this," said Szewczyk, who graduated from Centennial High School and Area Technical Trade Center in 2003.

In an industry where whom you know can be just as important, if not more so, than what you know, the program offers a unique opportunity to receive, in essence, the keys to the kingdom.

The foundation paid for Szewczyk to attend UNLV, where she graduated in August with a bachelor's degree in hospitality management and a minor in food and beverage. Scholarship recipients receive up to $10,000 per year to attend the university and participate in related programs.

The most important aspect of the program isn't the money.

Each program participant meets monthly with a mentor who becomes something like a celebrity career coach. Szewczyk's mentor, Joe Issa, director of operations for the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, put her to work at Puck's Postrio restaurant at the Venetian. For several months, she plunged into front and back office jobs like hostessing, accounting and food ordering that were very different from her culinary training making pastries and other delicacies. Later that year she was hired full time at the restaurant, where she worked for three years.

Postrio - like many first-class restaurants serving finicky high rollers and demanding gourmets - was a pressure cooker for Szewczyk.

"I wasn't ready for the fast pace - but I learned," she said. "We had to stay organized and rely on each other as a team."

After Postrio, Szewczyk sought to broaden her experience. As an internship grad, she had her pick of resorts on the Strip for jobs - after all, she had already met many of the Strip's food and beverage executives.

She chose to stay at the Venetian and recently she took a job in sales, including room reservations and the box office.

The mentoring aspect of the program is key to the students' long-term success in a demanding, high-stress field, Mahoney said.

Mahoney, who formerly directed food and beverage operations at Bellagio, is a former Marine who went to a Catholic high school in the Bronx.

"I've had two or three great mentors in my life, which is the most important part of this program," he said. "We expose them to all facets of the industry. We find them jobs and keep them focused. Yes, there are long hours and there are stressful situations. But it can also be a lot of fun."

To participate in the scholarship and internship program, students must have a minimum grade-point average of 2.75 and demonstrate financial need. There's a short application with an essay and a 15-minute interview. And yet the foundation, which publicizes the program in Clark County high schools, receives only a couple of dozen applications each year. Qualifying students may find it more difficult to convince foundation executives of their passion for food and beverage management - a career that doesn't come easily or sound as sexy to teens as, say, acting or playing poker.

"These kids are so young and this is a lot of responsibility in a competitive industry," Mahoney said. And yet, "with television shows and celebrities like Martha Stewart and Emeril, kids are being exposed to food and beverage at an earlier age and getting jazzed about it."

That was perhaps easier for Szewczyk than for most folks her age. She's adept in the kitchen, a specialist in eclairs and her family's kielbasa, a Polish sausage. Helping out around the family pharmacy, she said, instilled in her some basic business principles at a young age.

"It doesn't matter how difficult business is going or what mood you're in, you have to make the customer feel special," she said. "We are merely here to make them happy and help in any way we can."

Spoken like a true hospitality executive.